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House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, at lectern, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, left, answer questions at a press conference in Memorial Hall before the start of the Special Legislative Session.

On the last day of the legislative session, with the governor sure to veto their central effort to curb his emergency powers, House Republicans dropped what leaders have long considered the nuclear option: A controversial petition aimed at revoking all of the state’s coronavirus restrictions.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who for months has refused to sign on to the idea over concerns about its constitutionality and effect on federal funds, revived the effort by throwing his support behind it as the session wound to a close. On Friday, 65 House Republicans signed the petition and adjourned the special session set to end on Tuesday.

The petition escalates a long-simmering feud between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the GOP-dominated Legislature over restrictions on bars, restaurants, high school football games and the mask mandate, among other things.

The effort involves an obscure and never-before-used law passed in 2003 amid the SARS pandemic that dealt with the continuity of government if a Louisiana governor were to succumb to the virus. The law says either the House or Senate can deliver a petition with a majority of members’ signatures to the governor, who “shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of public health or emergency.”

The petition only seeks to end the emergency order for seven days, at which point the governor could reinstate his coronavirus rules, though it asks him to consult with the Legislature before doing so.

It was not immediately clear what effect the petition would have on the state's restrictions.

The governor tweeted Friday night that the Phase 3 order remains in effect.

Schexnayder declined an interview request Friday. In a statement, he said “the House has exhausted every available legislative remedy and has been left with no other option but to exercise its legislative right to terminate the governor’s emergency order.” He was apparently referring to Edwards’ near-certain veto of a bill narrowly passed by Republicans that would have given lawmakers some authority over the governor’s emergency powers.

The governor on Thursday had acquiesced to one of the Republicans’ demands and allowed some high schools to expand capacity at high school football games. But Friday, Edwards lambasted the new petition in a press conference where he called the move “reckless and irresponsible and unconscionable.”

“If there was ever a time to rise above partisan politics it is during a public health emergency,” Edwards said. “I would think that’s what the people of Louisiana expect. I know damn well it’s what they deserve.”

The governor added that if the petition is successful, “more people are going to get sick, more people are going to go to the hospital and more people are going to die.”

The petition was signed by all but three of the House's 68 Republicans. Reps Barbara Frieberg, of Baton Rouge; Stephanie Hilferty, of New Orleans, and Joe Stagni, of Kenner, did not sign it, according to a copy released by the speaker's office. Neither Democratic representatives nor legislators without party affiliation signed.

The governor said an end to his emergency order would jeopardize a host of emergency functions carried out daily by his administration, He pointed out the White House has repeatedly said it supports his mask mandate and other rules restricting occupancy at businesses.

After spending weeks debating various bills to curb Edwards’ virus restrictions, Republican leaders landed on the bill by Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, to give lawmakers a say over his emergency orders, which have been updated continuously since the pandemic started. But Edwards said Friday that no one “expected that bill to be signed into law," signaling he'd veto it. 

Anticipating that veto, and after failing to win more concessions from the governor on virus rules besides the expansion of high school football, House leaders, Schexnayder and Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, signed onto the petition.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has cast doubt on whether the idea is constitutional, even as he said Friday he does believe the state needs to open up the economy more. He added that pressure on lawmakers to allow high school football to happen and to allow more fans in the stands drove much of the action on curbing the virus rules.

Cortez said he expects the petition to play out in court. He added the idea never gained favor in the Senate because Senators believed “in order to manage a crisis you have to have all the information.”

“Most of the senators were thinking if I'm going to do the petition, I better have the data to back it up,” Cortez said. “And I better have the ability, if something surges, that you can undo it."

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican frequently at odds with the governor, said he advised House Republicans when they posed questions on the legality of the petition, but he doesn’t “run the House of Representatives.” He had also written a letter to Edwards earlier this week demanding he loosen rules on high school football games.

Landry said the law is clear: The governor must terminate the public health emergency if the House or Senate delivers to him a petition with a majority of signatures.

“The governor must do it immediately,” Landry said. “There’s no discretion. It’s a mandated act. He can’t say, ‘We’ll I’m going to sit on this for a week. Or well I’m going to see if it’s legal. That’s not what the law says.”

“If the governor refuses to follow the law, we’re going to treat him like anyone else who doesn’t follow the law.”

The White House Coronavirus Task Force in a report to Louisiana this week said the state has seen "stability" in cases and test positivity for COVID-19, even as other Southern states are spiking. On Thursday, Dr. Joe Kanter, the top coronavirus official at the Louisiana Department of Health, warned that Louisiana may be seeing the start of upward trends in hospitalizations and cases in certain areas.

Louisiana has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. In the spring, the New Orleans region was one of the nation’s worst hot-spots for the virus, before numbers dropped following a stay-at-home order instituted by Edwards. Again in the summer, the virus surged in other parts of the state, overwhelming some hospitals, before receding again in the wake of mask mandates put in place by local leaders and restrictions by Edwards. Dr. Deborah Birx and Vice President Mike Pence, leaders of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, praised the governor’s restrictions as a way to keep a lid on case growth.

As of Friday, 5,593 Louisianans had died from COVID-19 and nearly 179,000 residents had contracted it. 

Rep. Blake Miguez, an Erath Republican who chairs the House GOP delegation, said GOP lawmakers had a goal to “reopen Louisiana,” and after negotiations between lawmakers and Gov. Edwards didn’t progress to Republicans’ liking, the speaker revived the petition. The fact the petition was for 7 days and not longer was Schexnayder’s decision.

“We’re the voice of the people. The people over the last seven or eight months have spoken very loudly," Miguez said. 

House Democratic Caucus Chair Sam Jenkins called the petition "dangerous, reckless and short-sighted," and said it would put people at needless risk of catching COVID-19 and risk losing billions of federal funding – a point on which Landry disagreed.

Jenkins also noted the state is entering flu season – something health experts have warned is a particularly dangerous time in the pandemic – and said hospitals could become overwhelmed.

“A petition is not a cure,” Jenkins said on the House floor.

The special session was set to end Tuesday but lawmakers adjourned early Friday. The session also dealt with other issues that were largely overshadowed by the volatile debate over coronavirus rules. Cortez defended the Legislature’s work, pointing to legislation suspending taxes and benefit cuts set to go into effect because the state’s unemployment fund is bankrupt, and other bills aiding southwest Louisiana after two hurricanes roiled the area.

Lawmakers directed tens of millions to the bankrupt unemployment fund and to damaged universities in southwest Louisiana, though their addition of more than 100 pet projects drew fire from some lawmakers and good-government groups. Cortez defended those projects as vital for local governments hard-hit by the pandemic.

“All of these things could not have been done had we not gone into session,” Cortez said. “So, the focus was a lot on the oversight of the governor’s emergency orders, (but) there was a lot more work that got done.”

The bill that would punish local governments if they “defund the police” became the “swan song” of the legislative session, dying in the final 90 seconds.

The Louisiana Police Funding Protection Act would require parishes and municipalities to notify the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, in writing, of any reductions in funding of 25% or greater for law enforcement. If the legislative budget panel found that the budget cuts would have a “significant and harmful” effect on public safety, then the local government would lose its money for construction projects and its appropriations from sales tax dedications.

House Bill 38, by Alexandria Republican Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, had allowed several changes to the legislation but drew the line when senators changed the language from just police to nearly all local government agencies. The House agreed to change the wording back but still needed approval from senators.

After the bill was called for a vote, Democratic Sen. Jay Luneau, who is Harris’ senator from Alexandria, arrived at the podium with two bottles of water and started by recalling childhood visits to Charlotte, N.C. to visit an uncle who was a police officer.

“It’s an important issue and it's worth the debate even if we have to stay here until midnight tonight,” Luneau said, pausing to take a long pull of water. “This is the swan song of this session.”

Twenty minutes later, Cortez interrupted to see if Luneau would allow Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, to whisper in his ear.

The bill was returned to the calendar and 90 seconds later the Senate adjourned.

Mark Ballard contributed to this report.

Signatories on the petition: House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; Reps Beryl Amedee, R-Houma; Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Lawrence A Bagley, R-Stonewall; Gerald Beaullieu IV, R-New Iberia; Stuart Bishop,R-Lafayette; Ryan Bourriaque, R-Abbeville; Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte; Raylon Carrier, R-Oberlin; Jean-Paul Cousson, R-Lafayette; Raymond Crews,R-Bossier City; Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge; Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice ; Daryl DeShotel, R-Hessmer; R. Mary Dubuisson, R-Slidell; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles ; Michael Echols, R-Monroe; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Donna Edmonston, R-Gonzales; Julie Emerson, R-Carencro; Les Farnum, R-Sulphur; Michael Firment, R-Pollock; Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodeaux; Lawrence A Frieman, R-Abita Springs; Foy Gadberry, R--West Monroe; Raymond Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Jonathan Goudeau, R-Maurice; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; Charles Henry, R-Jefferson; Valarie H Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Paul Bryan Hollis, R-Covington; Sylvia "Dodie" Horton, R-Haughton; Michael Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; John Illg, R-River Ridge; Barry Ivey, R-Central; Michael Johnson, R-Pineville; Timothy Kerner, R-Lafitte; Sherman Q. Mack, R-Albany; Tanner Magee, R-Houma; Wayne McMahen, R-Minden; Danny McCormick, R-Oil City; Jack G. McFarland, R-Jonesboro; Markham Scott McKnight, R-Baton Rouge; Blake J. Miguez, R-Erath; Gregory Miller, R-Norco; Albert "Buddy" Mincey, R-Denham Springs; Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond; Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville ; Joseph Orgeron, R-Cut Off; Charles Owen, R-Rosepine; Robert Owen, R-Slidell; Thomas Pressly IV, R-Shreveport; Neil Riser Jr., R-Columbia; Troy Romero, R-Jennings; Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Hornbeck ; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; Vincent St. Blanc, R-Franklin; John Stefanski, R-Crowley; Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles; Paulette "Polly"Thomas, R-Metaire; Christopher Turner, R-Ruston; Debbie Villio, R-Kenner; William Wheat, R-Ponchatoula; Mark Wright, R-Covington; and Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com